We now have three Peter Dutton data points in three months that tell us about the Trumpification of the Australian right: “African gangs”, “white farmers” and “dead to me”.
This Trumpeting has been amplified by an unstated rule of journalistic practice: it’s more divisive to call someone a racist than it is to make racist comments.
It’s easy to assume Dutton makes it up as he goes along. It’s too easy to dismiss his thoughts as just the ramblings of a Queensland copper. But each of these interventions on the fraught race debate are better understood as a considered adaptation of global racial talking points into the Australian context in pursuit of clear political goals.
Dutton’s mythical “African gangs” of west Melbourne stood as the Australian proxy for the alleged “no go zones” in British cities, or Trump’s “American carnage” plaguing “inner cities” and the Central American MS-13 gang.
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The supposed plight of the South African white farmers is an online talking point across social media through the UK, the US and, of course, South Africa. As the editor of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian Khadija Patel tweeted: “[Dutton’s] concern for SA white farmers is no coincidence. It’s the result of a co-ordinated campaign to take white fright global.”
So global, that right wing Daily Mail Online columnist Katie Hopkins has said she’s preparing a documentary on the issue, which has already been accused of “inciting racial hatred”.
Attacking journalists as “fake news critics” and “crazy lefties” was a pure application of Trumpian language to the Australian context, and “dead to me” could have come from a Trump tweet. Although Dutton named no names, First Dog on The Moon was quick to claim credit, shout-tweeting “MEAN CARTOONS!” (To be fair, First Dog has fixed the image of Peter Dutton as, well, a potato.)
Serious journalists rush to assume that these interventions mean Dutton can never be prime minister (or, at least, never be prime ministerial). Perhaps they should read just about any “serious person’s” commentary on Trump in 2015.
But, unlike the Turnbull campaign, Dutton isn’t campaigning to be prime minister. He’s campaigning to be leader of the Liberal Party. After all, that’s what worked for Trump. And for Tony Abbot before him for that matter.
The ABC’s Wendy Harmer called on the Prime Minister to intervene, tweeting, “A real life consequence of your Minister Peter Dutton, calling @ABCaustralia employees ‘crazy lefties’ and ‘you are dead to me’ is that I feel unsafe at my workplace.”
To the surprise of no one, Turnbull has not responded one way or the other to Dutton’s interventions. Equally unsurprising has been Abbott’s eager endorsement. Labor has largely refrained from poking the bear, while the Greens have called Dutton’s comments “racist” and “fascist”.
This limited the ability of journalists to deal with the debate in the usual “he said, she said” kind of way.
The Greens intervention has caused its own dilemma. As we learnt (again) in last month’s brouhaha over Senator Jim Molan posting far-right anti-Muslim videos, it’s far, far worse and much more “divisive” to call someone a racist than it is to spread racist talking points. (Psst: it’s not!)
This tension emerged in a brief Twitter spat between News Corp’s Chris Kenny and his Sky News colleague Samantha Maiden after Greens Senator Nick McKim described Dutton as a fascist who had “exhibited racism right through his public career” on Maiden’s program.
For Kenny, this was “hateful, divisive and idiotic bile”. Maiden responded that Sky isn’t “an echo chamber featuring me wearing a Liberal Party logo t-shirt”. Kenny amplified his comments in The Australian last Friday.
In part, this was a brief public glimpse of the decades-long internal fight between News Corp’s traditions of journalism and of its political advocacy for the right. Or, in a broadcasting context, between Sky News during the day and Sky TV after dark.
In the US, journalists have the excuse of being taken by surprise by Trump. In Australia, we have the benefit of seeing the pattern and studying the lessons already learnt.
First lesson: it’s racism that’s “divisive bile”.